Very Black Friday

Listen, even though I’m living with mental illness, I’m trying to improve, millimeter by millimeter.  I’m trying to carve out a modest existence.  I get dressed every day.  I keep myself clean.  I take my medicine.  I exercise.  I have a service dog who makes sure, by her very existence, that I actually get out of bed to take care of her needs, and that I go on living, because she loves me so, and because I love her so.  I am a creature that lives only because of love.

It might seem silly that I felt blindsided by the family Thanksgiving celebrations,  the ones I was not invited to.  Why should that come as a surprise?  It’s been clear that my mother has recruited her family in her retaliation campaign.  

Yes, I know it’s textbook Narc reprisal.  I have been working to increase the distance to one that’s tolerable for me.  I stopped ending phone conversations with “I love you,” because I don’t.  I don’t hug her, because her touch is abhorrent.

Her style is “love me or fear me.”  I expected widespread destruction.  She’s been working on polarizing the extended family for some years.  And she loves to try to “Cinderella” me, by, for instance, tricking me into taking care of her cats while she goes on vacation with my cousins.  I stopped that.

I do still keep in touch with my mother.  I’m trying to help her find a way to move into appropriate housing.  She’ll be 90 soon, and the house she and my late father lived in for most of their married lives is not a good place for a very elderly person.  She’s very willing to accept my help, because, you know, “I owe her.”

But she is just now on a scorched-earth campaign of fiery vengeance, so instead of returning my calls she sent me a text on Wednesday, announcing that the entire surviving M__ family would be gathering around the Turkey Table…”well, almost!”  She added, just to make sure I got it.

Nice one, Mom.  Hope it brightened up your holiday!

Last year’s Turkey Day was also a bust.  Several years ago, when my dad was still living, I convinced my son that it really wasn’t fair that he spent ALL of the holidays with his father’s family.  Couldn’t he come to his grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving?  

Ugh, that even sounds bad when I read it, but I can’t whitewash it.  This is my blog, for heaven’s sake!  I’m supposed to be brutally honest, and so I shall be.

The first couple of years were pretty good.  He even used a picture of the two of us furiously cooking together as his Facebook profile picture!  And he got to know some of his cousins on my side.   And it was good for him to be with his grandpa, even though the latter, who I nicknamed “The Doormouse,” retreated into slumber after greeting the guests, and stayed there until it was safe to wake up.  A good strategy!

The downside was that he also got to witness my mother “disciplining” me for one or another perceived outrage.  Name-calling, belittling, mockery, silent treatment…oh, she loves to show off!   I was mortified, and unable to just shake it off, I told him how upset I was that she was doing this in front of him.  Another nail in my coffin, all of that.

When my father died, Thanksgiving broke up.  My mother’s absolute savagery toward my father in his last years acted as an absolute repellant!   The moment he died, I wanted to be out of there.  Nothing more to bind me!

Thanksgiving 2014 arrived just three weeks after my father’s death.  I spent it with my son, his girlfriend, and a swirling cloud of their friends, who dropped in for eats and smokes and beers.  I lay on the couch in a stupor of grief and allowed myself to be fed and cared for.  It was very much needed and appreciated.  

Then that woman exited his life.  Things might have been different had she stayed.  Who knows?

T.G. ’15 arrived.  Again, I didn’t want to be around my mother.  I tried to interest my son in inviting people for a potluck, or any sort of a gathering, at his house.   Or perhaps we could go to his friends who were making dinner?  No, he wanted to dine together, the two of us, alone.  I thought that was very strange, but if that’s what he wanted….

I went.  He was furious, and fed me his roast duck, and I slept in my camper in his parking lot.  The next morning he insisted I leave.  I felt as if I had been yanked in and beaten.  And I had been!  I don’t know why.

I called him last week.  He knows I’m in Arizona, no danger of my intruding on his East Coast safety zone.  He texted me, “I’m crazy busy.  Can we talk next week?”  Which is, of course, this week.

But no life-sign from him this week.  Not even a “Happy Thanksgiving!” text.  And that generally means he’s with his dad.  That is perfectly fine.  I don’t expect him to keep up with me.  He’s made it very clear that he’s not interested in sharing any part of my life, unless it’s the part where I give him money.  He doesn’t have to go all silent in order to avoid telling me that he’s reestablished his status quo, enjoying all of his holidays with his father.

What I can’t figure out is exactly why my son is so deeply angry with me.  I wish I could see and experience things through his eyes, his mind, his heart.  What do I do that so profoundly triggers him?

On the other hand, he has always made sure to get his way.  He is the master of the Battle of Wills game.  I was often the villain, because I refused to let his terrorist tactics ruin plans for hiking, skiing, swimming, horseback riding, barbecues, camping, dancing, and anything else that might potentially be spoiled by a child refusing to participate, scowling, stubbing up/going silent, and generally attempting to disrupt any fun that might be brewing.   Refusal to enjoy life!  And determined to take me down with him.  I refused.  I still refuse!  

In essence, I have spent half my life trying to teach my son how to enjoy life, and he has spent all of his resisting me.  Well, now he’s an adult, with a PhD even, and just as I shun my mother and her family shuns me, my own son and his extended family shun me.   Will this circle be unbroken?  God in heaven, how I’ve tried to break it!  But it keeps rebuilding itself: the hoop snake, with its tail in its mouth, spreading poison from one generation to the next.  Dare I hope it stops, one way or another, with his?

It all seems like a surreal mistake.  My mother raised me by threats and fear, violence and withholding.  I tried very hard to use only positive reinforcement (love and praise), but the child I got gave me a fortnight of newborn bliss, then erupted into rage-and-resistance personified.  How can a baby be enraged practically from birth?  I loved him so completely.  

The truth is, I don’t know what it’s like to live with me.  Consider the evidence!  Not so good.

Then what shall I do about this?  This life.  When I look into the future, I see muddy brown dust.

My world is spinning down.  It’s consolidating into a dense blackness.  I’m too dulled out to even feel, let alone care.  

I tried to get drunk yesterday, in order to be fully and righteously dysfunctional.  But I forgot about my drink and instead knocked it over into my bed.  I have never got the hang of drinking.  Just as well–wouldn’t want to add that to the list.  But now I’m sounding maudlin.  Must stop.

A Coupla Bummers and A Miracle

Well, it was Thanksgiving in America, again.

A friend of mine calls it Shabbos Hodu.  (“Shabbos” is the Eastern European version of the Hebrew word “Shabbat,” or Sabbath).  “Hodu” is the Hebrew word for both “turkey (the bird)” and the imperative form of one of the many words for “to thank.”  Thus, “Shabbos Hodu!”

In Orthodox Judaism there is no “Thanksgiving Day,” because we formally give thanks to God at least six times a day, and sometimes more often.

The three daily prayers, which take up to an hour each, contain 19 paragraphs of blessing.  Each of these blessings opens and closes with a verse of thanks.  There is a separate blessing expressing thanks in general, and when there is a quorum of ten people, a special very beautiful paragraph is sung that describes the praises of the Angels.  There is a verse in every prayer beseeching the Creator to rebuild Jerusalem, our Holy City.

The other three “Thank you’s” are contained in the Blessing After Meals, said after any meal containing more than a certain amount of bread (the exact amount is part of Jewish Law), and a shorter version that is said after eating any non-bread product containing one of the five varieties of grain that grow in the Land of Israel: wheat, spelt, rye, oats, barley.  The long version takes me 45 minutes to say, because I say each word with concentration on its meaning.  I learned this from my teachers.

In these prayers also, the rebuilding of Jerusalem figures large.  Both sets of prayers were codified while the Hebrews were in exile in Babylon, after the Babylonian conquest had razed Jerusalem.

However, I no longer live in a Jewish community, let alone Israel; and to tell you the truth, I’m not really practicing Orthodox Judaism these days.

It was so wonderful living in our little country, being able to practice my religion in an unfettered way.  We could wear our special religious items–you know, the ones we are prohibited from bringing to the Temple Mount–right in the street, in the buses, anywhere, without people screaming epithets and other unpleasantries.

I once had a conversation with a black woman from New Orleans who had converted to Islam, married a Lebanese man, and moved with him to Saudi Arabia.  I met her in India.  She wanted to know why we Jews had to have our own country, when we could be Jewish anywhere in the world.

I was so taken aback by this question that I had to sit and think for a minute.  At last I got hold of my senses and asked her,

“Were you able to practice Islam in America?”

“Well, of course!”

“Then why did you move to Saudi Arabia?”

“Oh, because it’s an Islamic country!  Saudi Arabia enforces strict Shari’a Law, so it is the purest Islam…”

For a moment, understanding dawned in her eyes, but it faded just as quickly.  I developed something that needed my urgent attention, and left my friend wondering what went wrong.

Oh yes. I was talking about Thanksgiving in America.

Since I’m in America for the foreseeable future, I am doing some things American style, like Thanksgiving Day and gifts for Hannukah (our Festival of Lights, coming up next week).  In Israel, Hannukah is a time for celebrating miracles.  Gifts are not really a central theme.  It’s all about the light. ( More on that next week.)  The American practice of giving gifts on Hannukah seems to have arisen in order to keep Jewish children from being bummed out because of Christmas.

Since my son’s father is Christian, my son goes to him for Christmas.  For the past few years, my son and I have been “doing” Thanksgiving together.

While my father was alive, my son would come to my parents’ house and he and I would make a kosher turkey, and we would all get gorked on the usual T-day dishes.

Last year I was still in shock from my father’s death in early October, so my son and his then-girlfriend made a huge feast at his house.  People dropped by, roommates who had stayed in town for their own reasons cruised by and partook, we all smoked a lot of weed, and generally had a good time.  My mother was not invited, because she has made herself unwelcome by her delight in shaming me in front of my son.

This year my mother decided to fly to my cousins and have Thanksgiving with them.  I was not invited.  My cousins, who suck up to her for their own reasons, did not invite me either.  That being the case, I felt no pangs of guilt when I accepted my son’s invitation, party of one.

Then my mother decided to cancel her Thanksgiving plans, for her own reasons.  Since she knew my son had invited me (party of one), she got herself invited to one of her many friends, who has a big family, so my mom could feel really angry that her own family had not invited her.

For some reason my son did not invite anyone else to dinner.  His own reasons, I guess.  It was a little weird having just he and I, especially since he was in one of his dark moods, brooding and irritable.  I really wish he would start taking lithium again, but he angrily rejects the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder that, in his opinion, was foisted upon him as a teenager.

So that was Thursday.

I slept in my camper van, in the parking lot of his apartment complex.  One of his neighbors, who had clearly been watching out for me, accosted me as I headed out to go to bed, demanding to know if I was visiting someone in the complex.  Surely he had seen me exiting my son’s door…

My nerves were already frazzled from dinner with my glowering son, so I fired back,

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because I think you’re just camping here.”  Whoa, let’s just get some holiday spirit of giving on here, hey?

I wanted to say to him, “Listen, Mr. Nice Guy, even if I was ‘just camping here,’ there’s a whole fucking empty parking lot because everyone has gone elsewhere for the holiday.  And what are you angry at, anyway?”

But I didn’t say that, because there’s always the possibility that a poor unhappy fucker like that will call the police, and I was already tired and tense enough.  So instead I said,

“Well, I am camping here.  This (pointing to my camper) is my bedroom.  I’m visiting ____ in Apartment _____.  Would you like him to come out and speak with you?”

As it turns out, this unfortunate fellow has seen my son, who is a weight lifter and quite muscular and buff.  So the sorry sucker subsided, and allowed as how that would not be necessary.  I also subsided, went into my spaceship and slept fitfully, as people constantly came and went, car lights and porch lights flashing.  My PTSD surrounding cops blazed like a tiger in the night.

Friday.  I woke up feeling like shit.  Depression.  Again. Still.

Went in and stood under my son’s excellent shower for half an hour while he went to work for a while.

When he came back, I said, “Listen, I’m feeling really disorganized brain-wise.  Do you mind if I hang out till tomorrow?”

The minute the words left my mouth I saw the twitch in his face that said, Oh No, Not That!

“Um…listen, Mom, to be honest, um, I really need my space.”

My heart hit the pavement.  Then I noticed the spiffy outfit.

Date.

Yeah, I was glad he was able to tell me no, but on the other hand I wished he had seen fit to be honest and say something more like, “Oh wow, Mom, I really wish you could, but since I thought you were leaving today, I made plans.”  That would have sent me off with a smile and a lighter heart.

“Oh, that’s OK,” I chirped, suddenly feeling like I’d been handed the bum rush.*

He graciously allowed me to stay long enough to use his internet to find a campground.  I found one pretty close by, said my goodbyes, and lit a shuck out of there.**

____________________________________________________

I called my mother today, just to see how she is doing, and I wish I had put money on the bet that I made with myself.  I would have won.  She barely spoke to me, and clearly had her victim act all planned out, in case I called.  I laughed.  Couldn’t help myself: it was all too predictable.

Now for the Miracle part.

My sweet Belgian Malinois, Atina, is most certainly an angel.

She sleeps in the right-hand third of my bed.  The left-hand third is reserved for all the computer-related shit that won’t fit anywhere else.

The only thing I had the energy to make for dinner was a cup of gluten-free microwave macaroni and cheese.  While I was mechanically going through the motions of making it, Atina was busy doing something in the bed.

She was pushing my duvet into a nest-like shape toward the pillow.  No, wait.  She was pushing it with her nose, straightening the edge up toward the pillow.  I thought, you cutie, you are making yourself a nest out of my duvet, and you know that’s my spot in the bed!  But I did not scold her.  My heart was brimming with love.  She pushed and pulled at my pillow, fluffing it and making it into a nice continuum with my duvet.  Aha, I thought, now I will see you plump yourself down in my spot!

But that’s not what she was about at all.

When she got my part of the bed all fixed up to her satisfaction, she plopped herself down–on her side of the bed!  She had made my bed up–for me!

I dropped what I was doing and hugged and kissed her for a long time.  By the way she reacted, she knew that I knew what she had done for me…she made a place for me to rest.  She did it with love and care.  As I write this, I am lying in the bed my dog prepared for me.  Her breathing is soft and even as she sleeps in her own third of the bed.

“Friends may come and friends may go, but your dog will always be glad to see you.”

_____________________________________________________

*”The bum rush”: A term dating from the Great Depression and possibly earlier, when many out-of-work men went “on the bum,” going from door to door begging for food, money, a place to sleep…if the man of the house took offense, the beggar would be chased off the place–“given the bum rush.”

**”To light a shuck” means “to leave in a hurry.”  It has its origin in the  Civil War, when dried corn shucks were used as fuses for light cannons and field artillery.  Once you “lit a shuck,” you had to run like hell because not only did the big guns recoil (and could run you over), but also sometimes the cannons would backfire, shooting cannon balls behind instead of in front of them.  The idiom is still in use in the Southern and Southwestern United States.  It is one of my favorites.

 

 

The Best Christmas Gift of All

Everybody knows I’m Jewish.  But.  I grew up being the only Jew in a world of Christians.  My teenage years were mostly in New England, in Southeast Massachusetts where people really do trace their family lineages back to the Mayflower, the ship that landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620.  I have been to Plymouth Rock and it is a disappointment.  All this hubbub about Plymouth Rock This and Plymouth Rock That, and all it is is a medium size boulder sticking out of the sand, with no distinguishing features save a bronze plaque:The Pilgrims Landed Here.  No mention of the Indians, turkeys, Indian corn, nothing.

With the exception of my parents, I had no other Jews to celebrate Jewish holidays with; and since my parents themselves did not have much exposure to Judaism, we bumbled through the two Jewish holidays we knew about (Hanukah and Passover) by rote: did the things we knew to do, ate the foods we knew to eat, but otherwise did not have any particular understanding of the significance of the festivals.  Since it was only the three of us, none of it lasted very long.

We moved to New England when I was twelve.  The other children were quick to let me know that “their ancestors got off the Mayflower,” meaning, “and you will never belong here or be one of us.”‘

On the other hand, since I had never belonged anywhere anyway, being from another planet etc., I got used to it and poked around to find families that would tolerate me crashing their Christmas traditions.

With the exception of Old England, I doubt there is any place on earth that takes Christmas so seriously as New England.  By “seriously,” I mean Serious Fun.  In those days you could count on two or three feet of snow on the ground and often more coming down, the night turned blue by the refraction of the snow so that the fields looked like vast undulating blue bosoms.

Over these blue bosoms we would tramp on Christmas Eve, freezing in galoshes, boiled-wool pea coats, and hand-knitted hats, gloves, and mittens, the latter so caked with snow from snowball fights that the wet wool threatened frostbitten fingers.

On arrival to our destination we would stand outside the two or three hundred year old clapboarded or shake-shingled house and sing our hearts out: the standards, O Holy Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy To The World, like that.  The family would come to the door , backlit from the roaring Yule log in the great open fireplace.  After grinning through our performance, they would invite us in to warm up around the fire.  Mittens came off and steamed on the hearth while we were immersed in great mugs of hot chocolate floating with marshmallows.  The cookies went ’round, inquiries made after the health of Aunt Bessie, and after we were warm, dry, and refreshed, we said our “thank-you’s” and “Merry Christmases” and set off across the fields to our next destination.

Most families did not put up their tree until Christmas Eve, unlike the current trend that used to begin with after Thanksgiving and now seems to be encroaching on Halloween.  The suspense leading up to that joyous hour when the big Balsam fir (no one used anything else, for the Balsam’s delicious fragrance permeates the house and no potpourri is needed) was hauled upright in the bay window.  There really is no better place for a Christmas tree than a bay window, because there’s plenty of room to move all around the tree to decorate, and the window seats make great places to sit while opening presents.  And of course, anyone happening by gets a spectacular view of the tree!

I don’t know about today’s decorations, but in those days there were two kinds: home-made, and heirlooms.  The home-made kind ranged from little felt Santas, elves, and angels made by first-graders, to paper chains made by us, to popcorn-and-cranberry swags that we made on the spot with a felting needle and a lot of popcorn and fresh cranberries (being New England, where cranberries come from, and all), to gingerbread cookies made of a special recipe that hardens and you wouldn’t want to really eat them but they look great, and of course the candy canes, which we did eat.

Then the box of heirloom decorations was opened, and a hush fell on the room, succeeded by excited exclamations as each precious piece was unveiled from its tissue wrapping, where it had slept, dormant, since last Christmas.

The Star, of course, came out first.  New England Stars are often made of hand-crafted tin with whirly things and tinkly things.  Some of them are lanterns that you put a candle in, if your ceiling is high enough.  Getting it on the tip of the tree involved ladders and gymnastics and usually brothers.

The icicles were of drawn crystal.  Real crystal, that danced with light.

The balls included clear ones with snow scenes inside, and ones with red-cheeked Santa faces hand-painted on, and each one had its own story: who it had belonged to, to whom it had been passed down to, and how it came to be in this box.  There was a reverence to hanging each and every memory, connecting generations, on the fragrant branches.

Nothing was done without a rich egg nog, or a wassail, to cheer along the festivities; and the cookies that were meant for eating came out.  Every year someone made pfefferneuse, those abominable pepper cookies that look deceptively delicious, but taste so evil that one is forced to seek out a discreet trash can to spit them out.  Likewise the obligatory fruit cake, made at least a year ago and packed away soaking in rum.  Does anybody really like fruitcake?  Please.  I want to know.  And please send me your address.

In my experience, fruitcakes are a great gift to receive, because you can pack them up in a different tin and give them right straight to somebody else–just make sure you don’t give it back to the person who made it–which can be a little tricky in a small town like ours.

Now.  New England Brown Bread.  THAT is a horse of a different color.  Who has had it?  It is a moist, molasses-filled cake spiced with cloves and cinnamon, bristling with raisins, baked inside a number-something (I forget, but I think it might be twelve) tin can, in a water bath.  That makes it officially a pudding, I think, according to English culinary nomenclature, but in New England we just call it Brown Bread, and it is the most delicious thing of all, especially eaten warm, splashed with brandy and dolloped with vanilla ice cream or heavy whipped cream (not the kind in a can), or both.  And it is BROWN.  Whenever I have been the lucky recipient of a can of Brown Bread I have never recycled it like I do the fruit cakes, but hoarded it until I could enjoy it properly.

Roll forward many years, and I am in Seattle.  How I got there is another story, but let’s just say I was alone, without family or friends.  I was exploring my Jewish roots at the time, and bit by bit learning the how’s and why’s, but really between the worlds, and terribly lonely and depressed.

As everybody knows, the holidays can turn a normal everyday depression into a catastrophic one, so I did some advance planning and came up with a solution: rather than stay home and entertain myself by running movies in my head about the brilliant and elegant ways I would off myself, I would go to the mission food kitchen and take my mind off my troubles by running my ass off serving meals to people who didn’t have the luxury of a home in which to sit and contemplate suicide.

I showed up on Christmas morning.  Even though dinner wasn’t to be served till noon, the dining room was packed with people holding down their seats, eagerly awaiting one of the few real meals they would get this year.  It was cold outside, too, and of course raining, being Seattle, so they got to wait in a warm, dry place.  My heart opened to all these souls: there but for the grace of God go I.

Tables were set, the dinner gong “went” at noon, and we waiters began to scurry with heavy plates steaming full of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, canned yams, canned green beans, cranberry sauce….there was a bit of confusion when some of the guests decided to “help” with the table-waiting in order to procure seconds for themselves….an announcement was made that seconds would be available after everybody had “firsts,” providing we didn’t run out of food.  Everyone sat down again.

A sudden wave of panic broke out in the kitchen: the cook had fallen ill–now what to do?  I mentioned that I had been a chef some years back, and was instantly drafted and in fact, shoved physically into the huge stainless steel institutional kitchen.

To tell you the truth, it wasn’t a difficult job to fall into, since much of the food was already prepared and just needed to be heated up.  But there was a herd of turkeys sizzling in gigantic ovens, and pots of mashed potatoes that I needed  a ladder to even see into, and such pans of dressing, that needed two people to hoist out of their oven compartments!  And oceans of gravy hot enough to scald to death the unfortunate who fell into the gargantuan pots.

I was very fortunate to have a small army of kitchen assistants who knew what they were doing, so all I had to do was ask questions and do what they said.  In two sweat-drenched hours we fed well over 400 souls.

I helped to serve the pumpkin pie, since by that time there was no further chef-ing to be done.  I could barely make it from one diner to another, due to the fervent hand-squeezings and embraces and blessings from people I would not have previously thought of getting that close to, but somehow, and I think you’ll understand, a blessing from someone who lives in the cold, wet, filthy, dangerous, hungry world of the streets is worth more than a blessing from the Pope.  It is a blessing from a fallen angel.

That Christmas, I felt that (even though I am not a Christian in the conventional sense) if someone had asked Baby Jesus what he wanted for Christmas, he would have said: Take care of the poor, the destitute, the hungry, the sick, the outcast, the prostituted.  This is what I want for my birthday….for Christmas!